Modesto, Turlock head of county teaching class

Modesto and Turlock educators dominated the county's most competitive Teacher of the Year in its 12-year history.

With a record 84 nominations, two teachers from each city rose to the top after paper screenings and classroom visits. Stephanie Orona, Kristen Leigh, Denise Nulph and Katherine Merenda will receive $1,000 each and were honored by the Modesto Rotary at a luncheon Tuesday marking National Day of the Teacher.

Each finalist had strong techniques to keep student attention, but the winners who stood out added to lessons and interacted with students, said Cheryl Martin, a Rotary member who judged the junior high category.

Teacher of the Year is broken into four categories — kindergarten through third grade, fourth through sixth grade, junior high and high school.

Nulph stood out, Martin said, because of her passion for teaching. "You can feel it," she said.

"I think people forget how hard it can be to get ideas across to students," Martin said. "There are so many good (teachers), but with Denise, you could feel her energy, the electricity in the classroom from the teacher to the kids, which flowed right back from the kids to the teacher."

A seventh-grade English teacher at Turlock Junior High School, Nulph, 51, started an after-school acting group, assisted with the Renaissance Club, chaperoned dances, helped with track meets, judged the county pentathlon, helped design a float for band and implemented a college awareness program.

A second-grade teacher at Enslen Elementary, Orona embraces research-based teaching strategies, according to Principal Deborah Grochau.

"From organizing a book club at Enslen (Elementary) to implementing a No Bully pledge for students to sign, Orona is a champion of school spirit and pride," Grochau said in nominating Orona, 41, who has taught for 14 years.

Davis High's Merenda, 45, was born to be a teacher, writing with a piece of chalk on many surfaces as a child. It wasn't until taking an environmental science class in college that Merenda decided on science as her destination.

Principal Eric Corgiat highlighted Merenda's extracurriculars: science olympiad and humanitarian clubs adviser, beginning teacher mentor, master teacher and intern adviser.

"All of these clubs and mentoring roles have the common thread of trying to make our school, the community and the world a better place to live," Corgiat said in nominating Merenda.

When judges visited her at her Dennis Earl Elementary classroom, Leigh, 27, assigned a debate for her sixth-grade students. Wearing Greek-style leaf crowns, they played Athenians and Spartans, debating the best political structure, democracy vs. militaristic.

"For that age group and the complexity of the arguments they presented, the students were so articulate. It blew the whole (visiting) team away," said Scott Kuykendall, judge and educational director at Modesto City Schools.

And Leigh's lessons are sticking. Her students tend to outperform other classes on state tests in math and English, Principal Tami Truax said.

In his third year judging Teachers of the Year, Kuykendall said it can be difficult to choose from the field of finalists. Not only are those teachers exceptional, but their students may have different challenges to learning, he said.

It's the teachers who are creative and require analysis and critical thinking that float to the top, he said.

"Some teachers are able to take risks to attract and engage students," Kuykendall said.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at or 578-2339.